Classics at the Movies with the CBSO – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Conductor: Stephen Bell

When you think of movie music, you’ll likely think of the music of John Williams or Hans Zimmer, or maybe one of the pioneers of film music, like Miklós Rózsa. However, in a number of films, the director eschews the use of a specially commissioned suite and looks instead to the existing classical canon for pieces that fit the mood or concept. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick used classical music in his largely non-verbal film, and it is to the futuristic world of 2001 that we venture for the opening piece tonight, for what could be better to open a night of film classics than the opening to Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, filling Symphony Hall with sound and expectation. The rest of the programme similarly celebrates repurposed pieces, with some used in maybe unexpected ways (who can forget the opening scene in Barbie and its affectionate homage to 2001 and Zarathustra?)

As the evening progresses, one can’t help but notice that filmmakers absolutely love strings. There are exceptions, of course (the horns and percussion in Zarathustra, for example), but we hear plenty of pieces in which the strings very much set the mood. And it is in such sections that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and the acoustics of Symphony Hall really come together. The acoustics are so good that one can pick out pretty much every instrument but the mellifluous string sound seems to somehow emerge from the orchestra, with lots of rise and fall, light and shade, as evidenced in the overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) or the haunting Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No 5 as used in Death in Venice. Tonight’s conductor, Stephen Bell, remarks several times that we are enjoying the best theatrical sound system in the world – music played live in a hall such as Symphony Hall – better than your Dolby stereo. And he’s absolutely right, of course. There’s something special in hearing the huge orchestral ensemble coming together under Bell, whose conducting is sympathetic to the moods; enthusiastic and precise.

But there’s plenty of variation, too: Sibelius’ stirring call to arms that is Finlandia, used in a variety of films and film genres, closes the first half memorably. And not all film music is necessarily purely orchestral, so we are able to welcome soprano Máire Flavin for a number of pieces. Flavin’s voice soars over the orchestra as she sings. But she doesn’t just sing: each song is a true performance as she inhabits the character. Her coquettishness in Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust (an early use of existing music, it was used to accompany the silent 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera) is an absolute delight. The one small fly in the ointment is that just occasionally her unamplified voice can get drowned out, usually away from her upper register, which is able to punch a clean hole straight through the orchestral wall of sound.

Nevertheless, this is a finely curated mix of the familiar and the not-quite-so-familiar, all played expertly by the CBSO and a fine night out – dare I say, better than a night at the movies?

Reviewed on 29 September 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Better than a night at the movies

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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